Biometric Database Gets Thumbs-up

The initiative to create a biometric database with information on every Israeli citizen took a giant step forward yesterday when a special Knesset subcommittee approved the bill that would require every Israeli to carry a biometric identification card and passport from mid-2010.

The second and third parliamentary vote on the bill will be held in a special Knesset session during the summer recess.

The biometric documentation will contain chips with digitally stored images of the carrier and scans of their fingerprints.

Within a year, if the bill is passed, all Israelis will have to have their pictures taken and undergo fingerprinting.

MK Meir Sheetrit, a proponent of the plan, argues that the databases are needed to combat forgeries. Currently, there are about 350,000 counterfeit ID cards, he says.

Opponents claim a 'smart' ID card does not need to contain biometric information.

Following a public outcry against the idea, certain changes to the original format of the law were agreed on Monday night at a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Sheetrit, chairman of the Knesset Science and Technology Committee.

The new format involves two biometric information databases, each held at a different ministry. One will contain the names of all citizens, each of which will be associated with a code number.

The second database will contain the actual biometric information - fingerprint and picture - identified only by code number.

Officials are hoping the system will safeguard against leaks since one database is useless without the information in the other.

Knesset sources surmise that the interior minister will decide to place one database at the Interior Ministry and the other at the Justice Ministry.

"Everybody understands that we need a biometric database," Yishai said yesterday. "There is grave concern about what could happen to the database. I have sought to do the utmost to protect the database and avert harm."

Not everybody is as sanguine.

"The legislation isn't irreversible, and the battle isn't over," said MK Michael Eitan, an opponent of the idea. "It would be better if the biometric database never gets set up."

Citizens will be able to have their photographs taken without transgressing religious traditions, the subcommittee also decided. For example, ultra-Orthodox women won't have to take off their head covers.

Under the law, every Israeli seeking to renew a passport or ID card will have to have a digital photograph taken, and be fingerprinted. Refusal will be a criminal offense.

The parliamentarians also decided that the biometric information would be confidential and kept separate from any other information. The data will be encrypted.

The Interior Ministry will set up an authority to manage and protect biometric database.

The law lays down the following penalties for offenses against the biometric information law:

? Exposing biometric information will carry a prison sentence of five years.

? Unauthorized use of biometric identity information will carry a three-year sentence.

? Deliberately or negligently causing biometric information to be exposed will carry a prison sentence of one year.

The law will require that the prime minister appoint a supervisor of biometric applications, whose job will involve formulating policy for new technologies. The government will impanel a ministerial committee for biometric applications, whose members will include the prime minister, and the interior, justice and internal security ministers.

The government will be keeping track of whether the biometric information helps foil crime. The head of the biometric database authority will keep track of the number of requests for biometric information submitted to the Israel Police and Military Police.

A report will be submitted in writing, once a year, to the interior minister, to the Registrar of Databases, and to the Knesset Committee for Biometric Applications. The report will also list the crimes prompting the requests for information, and the number of procedures that culminated in criminal charges.